Tracking electric guitars can be one of the most enjoyable instruments to record as there’s so many variables to the sound and style in which it is played. For this article lets assume the player, either yourself or someone you are recording, is a guitar god and that their abilities are flawless. What should you as a engineer do to ensure his performance translates well to the recording. Here are my 5 tips for tracking electric guitar.
Avoid using guitars that have rusty old strings as such strings can provide you with a dull tone with a compromised sustain. Make sure the guitar is restrung well. Look to see that the strings are wound properly at the tuning pegs and that the guitar has been played in a little before recording. Freshly strung guitars need their strings “stretched in” to stop the instrument from going out of tune during playing. This can easily be done by tuning in a string and pulling it up and away from the fingerboard at fret 12. This will apply even tension to where the string meets both the bridge and nut. Stretch the string away from the fingerboard then retune it. Repeat this process until the distance between the string being “in tune” to “out of tune” narrows.
Tuning And Intonation
So the guitar is in tune… but as the performer is playing in the upper register of the guitar you notice tuning problems. This is most likely intonation problems and can easily be corrected. Plug the guitar into a good quality tuner, try to avoid tuners that are indecisive and erratic. Tune a string, then play that string’s harmonic at fret 12 (the octave). If the note being played at the octave is sharp or flat then the saddle needs to be adjusted with a small screwdriver. If the octave note is flat you need to shorten the length of the string at the saddle by loosening the screw. If the harmonic is sharp then you need to lengthen the string by tightening the screw at the saddle. Make small adjustments and keep tuning the open string in as the open tuning will change with every small turn of the screw at the saddle. This is a worth while skill to learn as guitar shops in the UK charge anything between £20 - £40 for this service.
Always keep a handful of high quality jack cables for recording that aren’t 30ft long and been gigged a hundred times. The cable is the connection between a quiet peace of wood with some strings jangling on it and the power that will amplify it so don’t take that cable for granted. I will hand on heart say that Monster make some fantastic guitar cables which really do keep the tone of the guitar intact through to the amp. Cheap cables hurt your sound and are more prone to failing.
Stomp boxes and pedals are a lot of fun to use with electric guitar but be aware that too much of a good thing can be damaging to the sound you want to achieve. My advice is to always get the best sound and tone from the player, the guitar and amp so that you can slowly add a pedal into the chain ensuring that every pedal you include in the chain adds something you are looking for. Pedals can really easily take something away from the sound of an electric so try not to indulge too many guitarists that have just purchased their next great pedal that makes them sound like all the great guitarist in one.
If you are recording electric guitar with a microphone through a valve amp you will most likely have the amp quite loud to get those gutsy tones out of it. If you are using a solid state (transistor) amp then there is little benefit in re-enacting Spinal Tap. When working with loud guitar amps and microphones it is all too easy to get distracted by the energy of the sound to not listen to what it sound like through your monitors.
This list can go on and on, so I’ll stop here. If you have some of your own tips for tracking electric guitar then I invite you to share them below.